- Historic Sites
Is it really true that the more things change, the more they stay the same? Once upon a time, before the bureaucratic society, before modern war and technology, there was a very different world, and not so long ago. Let us revisit, picking at random, the year
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
But there is no questioning the future. Some five million immigrants have come to America— Irishmen, Germans, Britons, Scandinavians, a sprinkling of others—since 1815, and our population has quadrupled. (England’s for the same period is up less than 50 per cent). When a commercial and financial panic sweeps the country, later in this year, Fanny Kemble, the English actress who has married and divorced the owner of a southern plantation, writes home to England from New York an interesting comment. “It is impossible,” she says, “to conceive anything so curious to one on the spot, to whom the real positive wealth and prosperity of the country is … obvious.” And in the same year, James Musell Phillippe makes a thoughtful prophecy: by the end of the century, the United States will contain 100,000,000 people. In another half century, he decides, “she will be almost indubitably the most powerful government on earth.”
But the present, 1857, belongs to another nation, to an England at the height of her power and glory. Victoria is Queen, Viscount Palmerston, that perennial officer of the Crown, is Prime Minister, and large areas of the world are colored a comforting, imperial red. In fact, Mercator’s projection, the map generally used, only adds a feeling of power, by widening things toward the poles. It considerably enlarges New Zealand and Australia (which no white man has yet crossed) and makes British North America positively enormous (Canada is not yet a single confederation, not entirely explored).
What is it like to be in England now?
Those who wish to be presented to Queen Victoria at her levee gather in the Long Gallery at St. James’s Palace, the gentlemen in court dress, including knee breeches, the ladies with the trains of their fine dresses draped over the left arm. Each of them has sent to the palace, two days before, two cards with his or her name clearly written on them, together with a letter from a sponsor in the court circle who faithfully promises to be there also. It is, to say the least, a select company. The nobility, of course, and the clergy and the military are welcome. Physicians are admitted, but not general practitioners; barristers, but not solicitors. Merchants and businessmen (saving bankers) are excluded; it will be a while yet before biscuit kings and brewers are knighted. No divorced persons need aspire, nor members of the lower classes. This court still remembers the unfortunate occasion, during the previous reign of William IV, when a ci-devant cook-maid, turned into a countess by marriage, was inadvertently presented. William bowed smartly enough, but Queen Adelaide discovered a spot on the ceiling and studied it intently.
(Incidentally, there has been trouble with the Americans about these presentations, the problem of court dress, knee breeches and all that, which seems to echo like an ancient joke down through the ages. The former United States minister here, the old bachelor James Buchanan, the one who carries his head tilted to one side and who has just been made President—well, he rebelled at court dress, because he had his orders to appear in court “in the simple dress of an American citizen,” like Ben Franklin. In fact, there was an argument between this gentleman and a court official, the latter saying with some heat that the English people would consider such simple dress “a presumption,” the American replying that he respected the Queen but that it “would not make the slightest difference to me, individually, whether I ever appeared at Court.” And the London papers took it up. “There is not the least reason why her Majesty should be troubled to receive the gentleman in the black coat from Yankeeland,” rumbled one. “He can say his say at the Foreign Office, dine at a chophouse in King Street, sleep at the Old Hummuns, and be off as he came.” Finally a kind of compromise was worked out—black coat, white waist-coat and cravat, black pants and dress boots, plus a very plain sword. This last turned the trick, although Buchanan stoutly maintained he wore it only to avoid being mistaken for a waiter, a rather unlikely excuse since there is no eating at such occasions anyway. Then the whole excitement collapsed when tactful Victoria greeted the American with warmth and kindness.)
When a lady’s turn comes, she is waved through a door into the presence chamber. Letting down her train, which is instantly spread out behind her by the lords in waiting with their wands, she moves forward while her name is read aloud to the Queen. Now there is a low curtsy (which must end just short of kneeling). If the presentee is a peeress or a peer’s daughter, her forehead is kissed by the Queen; otherwise a commoner kisses the Queen’s extended hand. Rising, she curtsies also to Prince Albert and to any other Royal Highnesses on hand, and backs out of the presence with what she hopes is a dignified but not bold demeanor, trusting her feet will not betray her. After all, the train is going backwards now.